This October’s Transitions symposium, already in its sixth year of comics celebration in association with Comica London, begun with an eye-opening keynote by Dr Mel Gibson of Northumbria University. Her research on girls’ comics including the likes of Bunty ranged from the personal experiences of their readers, the implication of class brought about by the production value of the comics themselves, and the gender roles and values both introduced and crushed by their stories. As a wide-eyed first-time conference attendee, I was already blown away by the refreshing and in-depth nature of Dr Gibson’s research and how deeply it differed from what I had expected from the day. Comics studies weren’t a boys club, and they weren’t fusty. They were new, bold, experimental, and inclusive, much like the form itself.
As initially introduced in Dr Gibson’s keynote, a large theme that arose across the entire day was that of comics as identity, as a way of investigating the identity of a character (whether race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc) or as a way for the writer to investigate their own identity. She covered how the identities of many women and men reading ‘girls comics’ from the 1950s through to the 1980s were formed by the content of their pages, which told stories of young women striving for their careers, looking for love, or simply negotiating through the difficulties that arise when growing up. Many things could also be told about the identity of the reader through the construction of the comic itself, with broadsheet, single-coloured pages indicating a working class background, and the glossier, more magazine-like stylings of others representative of more wealth. An air of nostalgia was brought about immediately by this topic, with audience members chuckling and nodding in agreement with Mel’s observations, and only added to the warmth of community the entire day existed within.
Many panels continued investigating this idea of oneself formed within or explained through a comic, beginning with ‘Memory and Representation’ chaired by Nicola Streeten. The discussion involved papers from Benoit Crucifix, Barbara Chamberlin, and myself, covering comics which dealt with childhood trauma, the use of comics as a way of laying out memories, as well as the way they can become containers for said memories. There is something about the abstract nature of comics that creates a universality of experience or an ability for the reader to empathise with the experiences of others. This personal nature of subject matter and of the medium itself added to the already incredibly welcoming and inclusive atmosphere of the symposium as a whole, with email address and business cards being passed around with smiles and handshakes whenever possible.
I would like to thank all of the organisers of Transitions 6 for the eye-opening and deeply inspiring day we had this Halloween together, Dr Mel Gibson for her exciting keynote, and to Birkbeck for hosting such a progressive event, one to which I would happily return year after year and that I was honoured to be a part of. I would also like to urge those with a passion for comics studies who have never attended a conference or symposium to give Transitions a try, as it really won’t let you down.
Megan McGill will soon be graduating from the MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck College after submitting a dissertation on the feminist utopian fiction of Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy, and Monique Wittig. Research interests include, but are not limited to, the following: graphic novels and comic studies, feminist theory and fiction, science and speculative fiction, utopias and dystopias, contemporary US fiction, modernism, and postmodernism.
Transitions Image: John Miers